UniSIG: English in Dutch higher education

The philosopher Ad Verbrugge recently published a big spread in the NRC on the problems English is causing at Dutch universities. This could have been interesting, except that none of the problems he mentioned can really be attributed to English. Straw man number 1 is the issue of poor literacy in Dutch. If kids these days really do have dodgy Dutch, then that’s a problem with the way Dutch, not English, is being taught.

Anywho. I took the opportunity to have a little rant about this in eSense in my report following the inaugural meeting on 17 June of the SENSE UniSIG, a group for editors, translators and other language professionals involved with academia and academic English in the Netherlands. I gave a talk, or at least tried to; I made a point of encouraging audience interaction and as a result could barely get a word in edgewise.

Here we go:

eSENSE report UniSIG talk


English edition of ‘Dawn’, by Rik Smits

“Morgan Kavanagh was a man on a mission to whom nobody would listen. Yet he had solved one of the greatest mysteries in human history, or so he thought. Buried deep down in ancient myths, he had discovered the divine origins of human language and thought.”


This is the start of the book Dawn: How language made man. The book sets out to uncover what lies at the origins of human language. How did it come about in our brains in the first place?

Good question. Can’t wait to find out.

(If you’re wondering, shouldn’t I already know the answer to that, being a linguist and all? Nou … it’s not really a topic that comes up much in corpus studies.)

Anyway: the book is by the linguist and journalist Rik Smits. It was published in Dutch under the name Dageraad: Hoe taal de mens maakte, and I’m currently editing the English version. It’s rare that I’m dying to get to the end of an editing job just to find out what happens. Chapter 7 and counting …

The English edition will be out next year, then you can all find out too. In the meantime, here’s a teaser by the Dutch Foundation for Literature [spoiler alert]:

How did the human ability to communicate through language arise? Unlike insects and animals we all command one or more unique tongues, each with its own variants, adding up to billions of words worldwide. In Dawn Rik Smits presents a challenging vision of a subject that has not yet been fully researched.

Smits’ view is that language cannot initially have arisen as a system of communication. Indeed, from an evolutionary perspective, everything suggests otherwise. Language, he claims, is a product of the integration of capacities each of which evolved for its own reasons. Man is one of nature’s most vulnerable creatures, and the only substitute for strength is wisdom. We are unique in being able to aim and throw accurately. Our skills at calculation and estimation developed until they were sufficient to accommodate a system as complex as grammar.

Only after our linguistic ability emerged could we think logically and share our reasoning with others, at which point almost everything we now call culture took off at a great rate. Smits concludes that language cannot have long predated the invention of agriculture in the Middle East, some 14,000 years ago. This huge advance in civilization made abstract powers of reasoning indispensable for the first time, along with highly developed concepts of identity, past, present and future, all of which rely upon language.

Smits’ explanation of the origins of language throws new light on cave paintings by Cro-Magnon man, whose masterpieces of 40,000 to 15,000 years ago have been found at Altamira, Lascaux and elsewhere. Anatomically Cro-Magnons were modern humans, but they had no language in the modern sense. Their minds were so fundamentally different from ours that we would have had difficulty making ourselves understood to them. They certainly could not have conversed with us; they had no gods or religion comparable to ours and probably no real sense of eroticism. These things dawned later, as a result of the wonderful, accidental by-product of evolution known as language.

Prescriptivists go home

I’m a member of an editor’s group in the Netherlands that has an email forum, where members can post questions or comments on issues that have come up in their day’s work. Recently, one of the members was editing a scientific article written by a Dutch academic. The academic in question had consistently used a word in a way that would be strange in general (i.e. non-scientific) English. The editor was wondering what to do about it.

Before I got to the thread, a whole series of other people had answered. Unanimously, they agreed that the usage was wrong, sourcing dictionaries and Wikipedia. It surprised me to see that not one of them seemed to have considered the possibility of field-specific jargon. Now, I’m not saying that jargon is my favourite thing in the world. But when you’re editing a scientific paper and you see a peculiar usage not once but many times, this is when alarm bells should start going off. This is when you should STOP ‘correcting’ it, and go check on it. And by ‘check’, I don’t mean look in a general dictionary. That’s a world away from scientific terminology. I also don’t mean look in Wikipedia, much as my life is better for it. I mean look at the field in which the paper is going to be published – google around for academic articles on the same topic, or, better yet, published in the same journal your client is aiming for. In this case, it was plain to see that the usage in question was common in scientific papers.

If you’re still not sure, check with the author (shock horror, I know). I’d simply leave a comment in the text, saying the usage is strange in general English and asking if it’s typical of the field. This means all the client has to do is think ‘yes, you ignoramous’ and delete the comment, rather than laboriously re-correcting all your erroneous corrections. If the client turns out to be unsure about the word – which, in my experience, is never the case with academics – then THAT is the time to try to come up with a better option together.

Now, this to me seems self-evident. Scientists know the jargon of their field better than I do. But the folk on the forum begged to differ. By ‘allowing’ this sort of thing, we as editors are just compounding the ‘error’, they said. Wrong. Wrong in two ways, in fact.

First, if an entire speech community (in this case, the members of a specific scientific discipline) uses a particular usage, it is not an error. By definition, because it is then no longer deviant. Scientific English is not general English, and within that, medical English is not microbiological English is not marine micropaleontological English. Just because something is wrong in general English (however ‘wrong’ is defined) doesn’t make it wrong in a specific field. What’s more, if the client is an established academic AND uses the term repeatedly, chances are that it’s right.

Second, the whole attitude is way off. As editors, we are not employed to ‘allow’ and ‘disallow’ things, to sweep in with our white horses and red pens to ‘safeguard’ English somehow from hordes of non-native speakers with their mangled jargony English. That’s not what we are paid for. We are paid to ensure the academic gets published in the journal they want. Well, more specifically: we are paid to ensure that the target journal cannot reject their submission on the basis of their English. Some clients want to be made to sound more or less like native speakers, but essentially this is the crux of it. You’re not the saviour and protector of the English language, there to impart your all-knowing editory native-speakerness on their texts. You’re there to make sure their English reflects the English of their own academic community. So do the job, take the money, and put your prescriptivist cross away.

Becoming an agency’s preferred supplier: The inside story

Handbook of the Society of English-Native-Speaking Editors in the Netherlands: SENSE has many very skilled and experienced members who are happy to share their know-how. Thanks to Cecilia Willems, who initiated the Handbook, we can now offer members 20 extremely informative best-practice chapters. The chapters are authored by a wide variety of contributors from all walks of SENSE life, including such well known names as Joy Burrough-Boenisch, Susan Massotty — and most recently — Alison Edwards.

Chapter 20: Becoming an agency’s preferred supplier: The inside story

Enjoy your well-earned holiday … hurry back! Lots of fun (big) jobs waiting for you on return – you know you’re our no. 1!
Thank you for your email and CV. Should anything suitable come up, we’ll be in touch.

These are just two of the dozens of emails that I’ve sent out to freelancers this week. If you’re the sort of person who’s getting messages of the first kind left, right and centre, don’t bother reading this article. If you’re more likely to get the second – and let’s face it, we’ve all been there – then you’ll no doubt have spent countless hours gazing despairingly at an empty inbox and wondering how to dig your way out of the freelance doldrums.

But as an in-house provider with a decent amount of work to outsource, I know just how it can be done. Start with the right price. Add a top-quality product, and mix well with a good dose of stellar speed and service. Top with a dash of sparkling personality. Then, finally, get the stars to align just so.

At least, this is how it seems sometimes. I’ve got one foot in both worlds: as a freelancer, I’ve seen my fair share of rejections. But in the office, I see firsthand just how important a role (1) luck, and (2) arbitrary decision-making can play in in-house decisions about freelancers. Having said that, though, there is a whole swag of strategies that you can use to make sure that you become The Chosen One. Read on for the inside perspective of an agency coordinator with work to outsource.

Get things right.

It sounds too basic for words, but do check – for goodness’ sake, CHECK – that you’ve got the name right of the person you’re addressing. I do not give out editing work to people who address me as Allison, Alice, or – worse still – Edward. This is not because I’m uppity about my name. It’s because good editors are observant and meticulous, and observant and meticulous people spell prospective clients’ names correctly. Not observant and meticulous? Not an editor.

Likewise, your CV needs to be perfect. I don’t mean you need a string of certificates and impressive clients. Those are optional extras. After all, I don’t care where you got your degree. But I DO care whether you can spell. I do care whether you’re the sort of person who checks documents for double spaces after full stops, and I care whether you know the difference between a hyphen and a dash (all of which can be spotted on a CV from 10 paces back). I once received a CV from a prospective freelancer who had managed to spell proofreading three different ways on a single page. Needless to say, he didn’t make my shortlist.

You need to know your stuff in general, as well. If you receive a brief asking for UK English with -ise spelling, closed em-dashes and APA referencing, you’re expected to know what it means (or figure it out fast). One freelance editor I tried kept tinkering with the punctuation in perfectly good APA citations, then claimed ‘personal preference’ as his justification. Keep in mind that, just like you, in-house staff are also racing against the clock, so the more polishing of your polishing that we need to do, the greater the chance that it’ll be curtains.

This goes especially for following instructions: If you want to be placed in the cardinal sin bin, forget to use track changes. On the other hand, if you want to earn yourself some brownie points, ask what file name to give the completed document (e.g. we add the extension _corr to edited texts) rather than adding your own complicated numbering system to it. And finally, if you’re supplied with a terminology list or style guide, follow it religiously.

Make yourself indispensable.

The merits of sticking to instructions should not be underestimated. A brilliant editor is a connoisseur of style guides. Say the client asks why you’ve hyphenated ‘full-time’ in some instances but not in others. Was your choice based on gut feeling, or are you the type who’ll come back with a detailed explanation involving the predicate positioning of compound modifiers, with page references to recognised authorities? The more excruciating the detail, the better.

We have a 100-page style guide, and no freelance editor I’ve worked with yet has managed to apply it flawlessly. Nor are freelancers normally expected to, of course. What this means in concrete terms is that every time I go on leave, our clients receive texts that are, to a greater or lesser extent, inconsistent with our usual work. So I won’t shy away from throwing down the challenge: master the in-house style guide and you make yourself indispensable; ergo, this is your ticket to guaranteed freelance work.

At the very least, you should have your own checklist of things to do right at the end of a job. Check for double spaces after full stops (if you’re still using these, get with the times). Check one last time for consistent use of initial capitals (or lowercase letters) in headings. Serial comma used throughout, or not? We’re a university, so this should set off alarm bells about common sticking points: bachelor, Bachelor or bachelor’s? Dr. or Dr? Never trust yourself to pick up on every instance of these manually: basic Find & Replace skills are your friend here. A simple but useful method is to highlight anything that sounds your alarm in the initial edit – words like adviser (or advisor?) and decision making (or decision-making), proper nouns (Maastricht University or University of Maastricht?) and suchlike – then deal with them all at once, after you’ve got a full overview of the content but before you do your final proofread. If in-house staff find themselves doing these basic things for you, you’ll not make the cut on their Christmas card list.

Have a personality.

My office is only a small operation, but we might get 10 or 15 CVs a month. Most of them are forgettable. You might think your qualifications and experience should speak for themselves. But this kind of holier than thou-ness only works if your skills genuinely put you in a category apart: say, if you’re specialised in atomic physics theses or can translate medical Armenian. Oftentimes, the competition is strong and there might be four or five people on the books equally capable of producing a solid product. So you need to stand out in some other way. Give me a reason to make me want to contact you.

One of my favourite opening pitches is one an old colleague from my former life in publishing swears by: ‘Competent. Conscientious. Comprehensive. These are just a few of the words I can spell.’ Of course, be sure to tailor your pitch. Not all in-house staffers will be won over by cuteness, so do your googling first on the in-house contact. One prospective freelancer saw from my LinkedIn page that we were both members of an Australian expat group, and while that’s just a small and simple thing to figure out, sometimes that’s all it takes to bridge the psychological distance between you and She Who Holds the Purse Strings.

And, vice versa: You can’t not have a LinkedIn profile, at the very least. Picture it: I’ve got two CVs in my hands, both very much alike. Similar experience, same price range, and same tired CV layout. I decide to have a google. With Applicant No. 1, I draw a blank. She’s an unknown entity at best. You, on the other hand, have a lovely LinkedIn profile with a professional-looking but also friendly, smiling photo. Suddenly I’m just a wee bit more well-disposed towards you. (It might sound superficial, but when there’s little difference on paper we all look for anything that will tip us one way or the other; and after all, one of the nicest parts of my job is email-bantering with freelancers.) Better still, you have a proper business website with – best of all – a news section that you regularly update with press releases, articles you’ve written for this newsletter or that website, or interesting snippets on some aspect of language. Now, you come off as active, dynamic, on the ball. I choose YOU.

Finally, don’t be afraid of being human. Being professional is one thing, but stiff and standoffish is unnecessary. One freelancer had to wait some time for my feedback on her trial text because it was a particularly chaotic time in-house. She took my silence to bode badly, and wrote explaining that she hoped her death-in-the-family state of mind hadn’t affected her usual quality of work. Again, this approach won’t work for everybody, but it’s where your skills as a writer will come into play – it’s possible to be polite and professional and at the same time disarming and charming, as long as you word it right.

Be competitive.

All too often, freelancers charging prices that are simply beyond my budget want to lecture me about how wanting quality means being willing to pay more. Here’s the devastating truth: I can get quality, for a very good price. So at those times when there is direct competition between two freelancers equally matched for quality, your price will play a deciding role. That extra three or five euros per hour (or one or two cents per word for translators) does matter. After all, in-house staff need to balance their bond with the freelancer and desire to pay a fair price with the pressure from management to keep costs down.

That said, undercutting the competition won’t work if it doesn’t come hand in hand with quality. One cold-caller subjected me to a 15-minute marketing spiel about his unique selling points and quality assurance system, then offered such a drastically low price that I was sucked in – and the result was altogether shoddy. In this case, I learned that too cheap to be true is truly what it is.

Be there.

Like many agencies, we make virtually all our offers by email. If you write back within half an hour, so much the better, because all too often we need to be able to confirm urgent delivery dates with our clients. Any longer than that and my foot will be tapping an impatient hole in the floor. After an hour or more, I’ll move on.

NEVER miss a deadline.

End of story.*

What should be clear is that – cliché alert – this is about having the whole package. First you need to sort out your skills and fees. I have one provider who is dead keen to be our preferred supplier, but whose lovely marketing pitches just don’t make up for the poorer quality and dearer price. If you’re too expensive, or simply produce rubbish, you can take your bat and ball and go home. On the other hand, if you offer quality at the right price, your reward will be the (admittedly dubious) honour of going into competition against potentially dozens of others who, to the unenlightened in-house staffer, are just like you. It’s at this point that those extra steps, like having an appealing online presence or an original approach, will make you stand out. As a freelancer, of course you have to be professional and affordable. But you also need to be memorable.

Getting your foot in the door by standing out is step 1. Once you’ve landed yourself a text or two, you need consolidate that first impression with a solid follow-up. This will help you make the transition from the preferred option out of a bunch of applicants, to the preferred option from a pool of regulars.

To give an example: my current preferred translator made her entrance on a stroke of luck, by cold-calling just when my one and only colleague went on extended leave. But ever since, she’s been a gem. She always responds to my offers within half an hour. She’s entertaining to correspond with. She’s still the most affordable on our books. And she’s good enough that I find myself piling on the workload because I’d rather have her rush job than anyone else’s best. Because as Francis Cox pointed out in the ‘Managing Clients’ chapter, this is a two-way street. It takes hard work to find and break in top freelancers – so when I find one, I hang on. If you play your cards right, it will be you trying to get rid of me.

* Exceptions: (1) You have been carted off to hospital and the nurses have threatened to throttle you with your drip tube if you keep sneaking in your laptop. (2) A tractor has run over BOTH your hands AND a freakishly opportune virus has destroyed your voice-recognition software. (3) The Apocalypse has arrived and obliterated computers/the internet – in which case I won’t care either.